Test War: How Russia’s Air Force Brutally Used Syria for Target Practice

And the results were devastating. 

by Sebastien Roblin | The National Interest

In 2008, military observers within and outside of Russia noted the poor performance of the Russian Air Force (VVS) in the five-day Russo Georgian War. In the aftermath of the conflict, Moscow instituted a vigorous new round of military modernization and reforms.

These reforms were put to the test when in September 2015 Putin committed the newly reorganized Aerospace Force (VKS) to its first expeditionary war, a bid to prop up the faltering regime of Bashar-al Assad in Syria. After initially mixed results and multiple so-called “withdrawals”, it became clear by 2017 that the VKS’s intervention had decisively tilted the balance of power in favor of the battered dictatorship.

Much as the Spanish Civil War served as a testing ground for Stukas and mechanized warfare tactics, the Syrian conflict was also exploited as a live-fire testing range for a new generation of Russian weaponry and operational methods. This was made all the clearer by systematic efforts to deploy every type of combat aircraft in the Russian inventory, including strategic bombers that had never before dropped a weapon in anger over sixty years and non-weapons-capable stealth fighter prototypes.

The VKS rotated in twice the normal number of flight and maintenance personnel for each plane in Syria to facilitate a high tempo of operations. By 2018 the Russian defense ministry claimed 80% of its flight crews had served a combat tour in Syria.

But Russia’s air operations have likewise afforded observers a chance to see how VKS hardware and doctrine adapted to real-world combat.  In this piece, we’ll look at operations by the VKS’s dedicated ground attack planes in the 2015-2018 period. Fighters, strategic bombers and other aircraft will be addressed in a separate article.

This piece draws primarily upon the excellent Moscow’s Game of Poker by aviation historian Tom Cooper who weaves a coherent narrative of the political and military events of one of the most complicated multi-factional and multi-front wars in recent memory, as well as Anton Lavrov’s “The Russian Air Campaign in Syria.”

Unguided Bombs and Satellite Blues

As Syria was a ground war, its unsurprising the VKS workhorses in Syria have been tactical bombers and attack jets specifically designed for that task.

However, the VKS wasn’t out to perform a U.S. style precision-bombing campaign. While precision munitions have long existed in the Russian arsenal, they are available in much smaller quantities. 

Instead, 97% of VKS strikes, according to Cooper, were made using inexpensive “dumb” unguided bombs, enhanced through use of the SVP-24 Legend naviation/attack system. Once targets are programmed into the system—which takes about 45 minutes—it leverages satellite-navigation (GLONASS, the Russian GPS-equivalent) to automatically release unguided munitions at high altitude, beyond the reach of flak and shoulder-launched missiles (MANPADS).

This minimized cost and risk, which was vital after the VKS to ban attacks runs below 13,000 feet following damage to a Su-25 by a MANPADS in October 2015.

But the SVP-24 method was only moderately accurate: according to Cooper, video evidence showed bombs regularly missing by 100 meters (a football field-length) off-target.

One issue was that the GLONASS satellite constellation had been underfunded for years and could not ensure sufficient accuracy. To compensate, Russia began building differential correction stations across Syria to enhance GLONASS capability improving accuracy by 30 to 40%.

Another measure to compensate for low accuracy was to plaster the target with multiple bombs and make heavy use of cluster bombs (video here) with incendiary munitions. The use of these in civilian areas is illegal under international law.

The resulting collateral damage wasn’t seen as a problem, though, because the VKS quickly adopted the Syrian Air Force’s strategy of targeting civilian infrastructure in rebel-held communities such as hospitals, schools, mosques, refugee camps, bombs shelters and bakeries. 

For example, during a six month period in 2016, jets struck Syrian hospitals 172 times—nearly once per day.

The slaughter was meant to drive out the civilian population and evolved into a “kneel or starve” strategy in which bombing was used to compel rebels and civilians to negotiate their withdrawal to a safe zone which would inevitably then come under attack down the line.

Besides, due to a deficit in intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance assets, the VKS largely committed to pre-planned strikes on static targets identified by the Syrian military. Russian drones early in the campaign were short-range models intended for artillery spotting, so the VKS had to turn to Israeli-built Heron drones for longer-endurance capabilities.

The main workhorse was the Su-24M Fencer, a Cold War swing-wing supersonic tactical bomber akin to the retired U.S. F-111 Aardvark. Between six and eighteen were deployed at various times in Syria flying nearly half of all sorties. Typical armament was four 250- or 500-kilogram dumb bombs, including RBK-500 cluster munitions and BETAB-500 concrete-piercing weapons for knocking out underground bunkers or gutting multi-story apartment buildings. A Turkish F-16 shot down a Su-24 in November 2015. A second fatally crashed during takeoff.

The Su-24 was increasingly supplemented by the more modern Su-34 Fullback, basically an enlarged two-seat bomber evolution of Russia’s Su-27 Flanker fighter distinguished by its flattened “platypus” nose. Initially, six to eight were deployed, a number which surged to twelve late in 2017.

In addition to superior range, speed and payload, the Su-34 incorporated a Platan laser-targeter—making it one of the few Russian combat jets able to lase its own targets for precision bombing—and a surface-scanning multi-mode PESA radar

The Fullback was powerful but proved “a handful to maintain” according to Cooper, with up to one-third grounded at a time due to wear and tear from the elements. The Su-34s longer range made it capable of striking targets like Raqqa without having to relocate to more exposed forward bases in central Syria. Six Su-34s also briefly deployed to Hamadan, Iran to launch strike against ISIS targets—but soon after Iranian politicians nixed the arrangement as unconstitutional.

Su-34s typically flew with R-27R and R-73 air-to-air missiles for self-defense and RBK-500 cluster bombs loaded with ZAB-2.5S/M incendiary bomblets.  During the spring of 2017, ODAB-500 thermobaric bombs known to produce a deadly vacuum of shockwaves were liberally dispensed by Su-34s over urban areas. A Su-34 also reportedly knocked out a rebel-operated SA-8 ‘Osa’ self-propelled surface-to-air missile system using KAB-500 precision-guided bomb.

Deployment: Initially eight.  Since March 2016, only four to six thereafter. Surged to twelve in 9/2017

Improvements

Pre-planned strikes at high altitude against static targets could not ensure battlefield successes of Syrian ground forces. A lack of ISR capability also meant Russian aviation repeatedly missed opportunities to pounce on vulnerable ISIS vehicle columns, despites such columns being an ideal target for aviation since World War I.

To enhance effectiveness, the VKS made increasing use of Forward Air Controllers embedded with Syrian ground forces. These identified critical targets from the ground and transmitted targeting coordinates via the Metronome system on Su-24M jets.

By mid-2017s “cab ranks” of ten Russian jets would frequently take to the air four times a day, waiting for targets to be transmitted to them by FACs and a beefed-up drone force.

The other change was an increasing commitment of “low and slow” close air support operations in 2016 using a trifecta of modern Russian attack helicopters—Mi-35Ms, Mi-28Ns and Ka-52s—and Su-25SM Frogfoot armored ground attack jets, basically a somewhat lighter and faster counterpart to the American A-10 Thunderbolt which has seen extensive combat use since the 1980s.

The initial Su-25SMs deployed lacked the Metronome system, and instead were dispatched on “free hunting” interdiction missions focusing on key supply lines. 

In 2016, at the request of Iranian forces, VKS Su-25s began hammering the Azaz supply corridor running from the Turkish border into Aleppo, “a blow from which the Syrian insurgency never recovered” according to Coopers.

Instead of using Western-style precision missiles, VKS Su-25s relied on B8M unguided rocket pods with twenty 80-millimeter rockets, or more powerful B13M pods with 130-millimeter rockets to attack point targets.

In addition to rockets and cannons, the Mi-28N brought Ataka radio-controlled missiles to the table, and the Ka-52 got to combat-test Vikhr-M laser-guided anti-tank weapons.

In fact, in Cooper’s estimation, “the sole effective component [versus ISIS] was limited to the deployment of attack helicopters, a few Su-25s, and the FACs.”

Russian operations against ISIS in the open deserts of Deir-es-Zor in 2017 especially reflected an improved reconnaissance-strike complex according to Lavrov:

“For the first time, videos released by Russian MOD destruction of ISIS vehicles including moving tanks… Apparently, all Russian reconnaissance assets were concentrated in this region of Syria. Several long-endurance Forpost and Orlan-10 drones were always on duty. The number of flights by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Syria reached 300 per week. Most pro-government forces and private military companies were assigned Russian forward air controllers. This led to several cases in which aviation destroyed typical ISIS units consisting of one or two tanks, several armed pick-up trucks, and a few suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.”

Frogfoots were then briefly withdrawn, but in 2017 improved Su-25SM-3 model aircraft returned, equipped with the improved SOLT-25 electro-optical sensor in the nose, including an infrared imager and a modern laser targeter, as well as Metronome communications systems. 

New Vitebsk self-defense systems and L-370-3S jamming pods also allowed the Su-25 pilots to take greater risks, though a Su-25 was shot down by a missile early in 2018. Su-25s were also involved in a tense confrontation with U.S. F-22 stealth fighters in December 2017.

Overall, Russian aviation demonstrated improved technical and operational sophistication by 2018, including increasing adoption of some elements of Western-style network-centric warfare.  However, high-altitude unguided bombing methods leaning on the SVP-24 system would be of limited applicability in a conflict against a foe with serious air defenses and satellite-spoofing capability.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

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